Sondra Radvanovsky’s got a dancer’s grace (‘tho she stands almost 6-feet-tall) and a resonant voice that polishes-off the meatiest Verdi roles with rich, vibrant color. At (barely) 40-years-old, the American soprano has already racked-up premieres at the world’s most recognizable opera houses, collaborated with a smattering of the first class conductors (Gianandrea Noseda, Nicola Luisotti, Patrick Fournillier, and Fabio Luisi) and has worked closely with prominent opera directors (Robert Carsen, David McVicar — and even William Friedkin).
You’re one of the top Verdi sopranos singing today — let’s talk about Verdi’s women: Which of his roles fit you best? Which roles do you have trouble slipping into?
“Vocally, Trovatore’s Leonora is a good fit, and since I’ve sung it hundreds of times it’s very secure for me. I respect the versatility of the vocal writing, and love that she has a chance to sing every dynamic. Dramatically, I feel that I’ve expanded the role. Leonora is sometimes depicted as a wilting, wall-flower type, but here you have a character that’s going to give up her life for someone else, and that’s a fairly big thing – she’s got to have guts, and she needs to be impetuous, spirited, and passionate. So for David McVicar’s Il Trovatore at The Metropolitan Opera, we made Leonora young and vibrant, and since that matches my personality rather well, it’s a role I savor. Luisa Miller is another Verdi role that I’ve really enjoyed. Vocally I might be a bit past it, but I think she’s a fabulous character. For various reasons, the role I have difficulties slipping into is Elvira in Ernani. She’s just not a complete character; it’s a bit archaic, somewhat unrealistic, and vocally, it’s not a well-composed opera. And I find the premise unrealistic because in the modern era, Elvira would run off with the king! Why wouldn’t she? He’s rich, nominally handsome, and powerful – it’s a no-brainer!”
Trovatore is a hellish, difficult work to conduct. We’ve heard gorgeously elegant and dignified versions from Giulini and Gatti, but sometimes the interpretation can border on campy or bombastic — there’s an undecurrent of vulgarity often hiding underneath the surface. You’ve already sung Trovatore at Covent Garden with Carlo Rizzi, and at The Metropolitan Opera with Gianandrea Noseda, while you have your Leonora San Francisco Opera debut coming up with Nicola Luisotti. Are there any conductors you’d like to work with on Trovatore that you haven’t yet had the opportunity, or ones that you’d collaborate with again?
“I’ve had nothing short of fabulous experiences with all the conductors I’ve had the pleasure of working with, but Fabio Luisi is one of my favorites, and he’s really a lovely person to work with. He’s so knowledgeable of the scores, and he can handle repertoire in any language. I collaborated with him in 2005 for the Robert Carsen production of Trovatore in Bregenz, but in the end, it was a “virtual” collaboration due to inclement weather, as I had to take his leads on a video transmission from beneath the orchestra pit. So it would be a true privilege to do a proper Trovatore with him.”
You’ve already sung in various stagings of Trovatore. Lately you’ve been working with David McVicar’s new and very well-received production of the Verdi opera, which will premiere at the San Francisco Opera next month. What were the main elements of McVicar’s production that made it so successful?
“McVicar was really thinking outside of the box for this production. Overall, the darkness of the staging was appropriate because Trovatore is thematically a dark opera. The turntable element was integral in propelling the action, and really worked in illuminating and congealing the narrative. Trovatore is sometimes susceptible to becoming stilted because sometimes you don’t realize the relationships that you can’t see. McVicar also gave us room to develop each role by pushing us to explore, which is sometimes difficult for singers to always remember after singing the roles so many times. He didn’t settle for generic readings of each character, because it’s just so easy to fall back on the expected, trademarked version of each stamped-out character. But he demanded so much more, which made it young, invigorating, and exciting.”
Are there certain Verdi librettists that you favor more than others?
“Arrigo Boito works well because he’s so conversational, and his libretti read more like how one speaks in real life. With works like Falstaff and Otello, his libretti make sense in a theatrical sense because it keeps the action moving.”
One of Verdi’s main thrusts of Trovatore is that of destiny. How much do you believe in destiny?
“When you look at opera, you discover that destiny was interwoven into many of the plots, so to say one believes in destiny isn’t unusual. I’m quite metaphysical, and when I reflect on the career I’ve had, I like to believe that there’s a system of higher guidance. I’ve had numerous roadblocks throughout my path and yet I am still here singing, and I have a life that I could have only dreamed of. Meeting my husband was truly fateful. He grounded me and changed my life for the better. My career has built slowly throughout the years, and he’s been there for me every step of the way.”
Very soon you’ll be singing in the premiere of Trovatore at the San Francisco Opera — where Nicola Luisotti takes the podium for the first time as the new Music Director — I’m assuming you’ll have a few opening galas to attend. Do you have any go-to designers that you prefer?
“I don’t have a single go-to designer, so I keep my eye on different collections each season. I like Escada, Carolina Herrera, Donna Karan, and Max Mara, but I have yet to find a designer that is an exact reflection of my style. I prefer designs with structure and tailoring because as an opera singer inches shy of 6-feet-tall, it’s harder to embrace some of the more conceptual designs like Prada or Yves Saint Laurent. Also, I’ve just turned 40 so my personal style as a woman is evolving, and it’s more important to find a style that’s fun yet elegant. But regardless of which designer I’m using, I look for something that makes a statement when I walk on the stage, because you have a visual aspect to satisfy in addition to the audio aspect.”
Following the same thought, the opera industry has become so high-maintenance and image conscious. Do you follow a workout regime or any special diets to keep in shape? Yoga? Pilates?
“I like to stay active, which usually means finding a gym in whichever city I’m visiting. I have trainers, I do cardio, and I like yoga and Pilates. But fitness for me isn’t necessarily about fitting into those designer dresses. Rather, my body is my instrument. I keep in shape for my own well-being, and understand the importance of keeping in shape to supplement my voice.”
You’ve sung with colleague Dmitri Hvorostovsky many times before — particularly his Count di Luna to your Leonora in Verdi’s Trovatore – and you’ll be singing with him again in the September San Francisco Trovatore premiere. What’s the vocal and physical dynamic between the two of you? How important do you think it is for the singers to gel?
“We’re like brother and sister: we argue, we bicker, we laugh, and we even prank each other! Our playful dynamic makes for great chemistry on stage. Vocally, our voices really blend well because we both have a very dark, Slavic sound. The most wonderful aspect of our intensity is that it never feels like I’m working when I’m with Dmitri. He’s simply an amazing artist with an incredible voice and natural, on-stage talent.”
You have a Verdi Duets album with Dmitri Hvorostovsky and a solo album of Verdi arias, both which are going to drop this season. Give us the details! What’s your favorite track?
“The Duets CD is a live concert from last June at the Conservatorio in Moscow where Dmitri and I sang a program of all-Verdi arias and duets. It was quite a memorable concert because not only was it the first time that I had met Dmitri, but it was also the first time I had ever sung with him. The chemistry on stage was incredible – it was like electricity had filled the hall. And Dmitri’s voice was so sublime that I just wanted to stand there and listen to him sing! One of my favorite selections from the concert was the Simon Boccanegra duet: It was the first time I sang that duet, and the way that Dmitri caressed each line was beyond beautiful.”
As a coloratura soprano/lirico spinto, is there a role you’d love to sing, regardless of the fact that it’s not written for your voice? For example: Norma?
“There have been two predominant roles that influenced me from an early age. The first is Tosca, which I heard at eleven years old with Eva Marton and Plácido Domingo, and Puccini’s work had so much resonance with me, that I credited it with my decision to become an opera singer. The second role is Norma. As a devoted admirer of Maria Callas, I believed Norma was the pinnacle of a soprano’s career. Of course, there are many more, but I’m satisfied that my voice is growing into the repertoire that I’ve always dreamed of singing.”
Did anyone ever give you stellar piece of advice that you still conjure up to help you through difficult aspects of performing?
“Abundant advice — unfortunately both good and bad — but I always let the bad advice roll off my back, while the good advice has fortunately remained with me for many years. An adage from my coach, Tony Manoli, who I have been with for over 15 years is: ‘There is a difference between temperament and just being tight in your body…temperament is MUCH better!’ But my favorite maxim was from my voice teacher in Santa Barbara , Martial Singher, who said: ‘Never louder than lovely.’”